This is someone you want showing up at your house unannounced, with cameras rolling.
Danielle Lam appears in a tight blue dress holding balloons, flowers and a giant cardboard check.
What’s up with that?
It’s just what you see on TV when the Prize Patrol from the fabled Publishers Clearing House comes calling.
“It’s real reality television. We never let them know in advance,” said Lam, a prize fairy godmother with the magazine subscription empire known for its sweepstakes surprises. “We just kind of show up.”
That’s what she did last week on a sunny Wednesday afternoon, parading through a quiet Mukilteo condo complex with a $10,000 check made out to Laura Smith.
“This lady has no idea,” said Lam, a 13-veteran on the Prize Patrol beat for the New York-based company that was started in a Long Island basement in 1953.
This is a job where people love you. Lam doesn’t worry about having the door slammed in her face.
After double-checking the house number, she rang the bell and rapped on the door. Knock knock kn-knock knock. Knock knock.
Muffled voices could be heard inside.
Good, they were home.
Outside, anticipation cut through the air as several cameras trained on the door and Lam juggled her armload of festive accoutrements.
Hopefully, they will be dressed.
The door opened.
Laura and Tom Smith were fully clothed, their hair combed. Tom even had crew socks on with his shorts.
“You’re Publishers Clearing House, aren’t you?” he said. “Holy roses!”
Laura Smith just smiled. Her name, not his, was on the check for $10,000.
The Smiths enter the sweepstakes daily. It’s a ritual, first thing every morning after checking email for the couple, married 54 years. So ingrained is the habit that over the years a few times Tom, who always answers the door in this marriage, tried to prank Laura that the Prize Patrol was waiting.
She never fell for it.
This time, when the bell rang she was busy upstairs in her sewing room, making blingy garter belts for a grandson’s September wedding. She made them for one wedding and now everybody wants them.
Tom Smith was going to go solo to the door. Then he saw the PCH logo balloons through the window. So he made her come, too, just in case he wasn’t seeing things. That’s why it took a few long minutes. No, they didn’t stop to comb their hair. They’re not the types to slum around all day. It’s almost as if they’re always ready for the Prize Patrol to come knocking.
“I can’t believe it. After all these years,” Tom Smith said. “I never thought you’d ever come.”
Lam had them verify on camera that it was a surprise, with no warning, not a staged performance.
Some people think the Publishers Clearing House prize hoopla is urban legend or fake or rigged.
“It really is random,” Lam said.
She said people don’t have to buy magazines or products to win. In the past, the company settled legal actions over the odds of winning and if purchases increased the chances. Most entries are online these days, though some fill out paper submissions like Lam used to do with her grandma as a kid.
There are sweepstakes imposters trying to scam people by phone and email. The Prize Patrol only shows up in person. Lam is a member of the Prize Patrol Elite, which delivers the big bucks.
“We are on the road at least once a week,” she said.
In May, she delivered a $1 million prize to a 65-year-old Spokane man, who will get the money over 30 years.
Lam said most people are happy with $10,000. They can wrap their head around it and cash in at the bank.
“I’m not greedy. I’ll take anything,” Laura Smith said.
“I wish it had about three more zeroes,” her husband said.
The couple entertained ideas how to use the windfall.
“I really need to do a remodel job in a few places,” she said.
“We just paid $9,600 for air-conditioning,” he said.
Cool cash it is.
Of course, Uncle Sam gets a cut.
“I’m just thinking of the taxes I got to pay,” Tom Smith said. “What a bummer, huh?”
He retired from the Air Force, and was a pilot and flight instructor at Boeing in Renton and Southwest Airlines in Texas. She was a teacher. They traveled the world and lived near Dallas before moving to Mukilteo three years ago to be near a son in Everett.
Lam has traveled the U.S. to every state but Alaska and one of the Dakotas, handing out money for the Prize Patrol. She flew in for the day to deliver the prize to the Smiths, only to return home to plan her next trip.
“It’s constantly moving and grooving,” she said. “Every time is different.”
Yet it follows the same drill: First stop is a store to buy flowers, fill up the signature PCH balloons with helium and change from travel jeans into the blue dress. Then she scouts the block where to park and plot a discreet yet grand entrance. She does a video clip to practice, which this time entails a crash course on how to say Mukilteo.
“Think Buckle-teo,” the Daily Herald photographer told her.
Buckle-teo isn’t a word, she said.
It worked, though. Lam said it flawlessly on the video.
Has she ever gone to the wrong house?
“I have,” she said. “It happens.”
Lam doesn’t worry about the winner being home.
“If not, we ask the neighbors for help. Your neighbors always know what you’re up to, in case you didn’t know,” she said.
“Many times the winner is at work and we have to track them down. A few weeks ago, I was in California and they were camping and we had to find their campsite. We drove for an hour and a half. You do what you got to do.”
The “Bukilteo” gig went off without a hitch.
Andrea Brown: firstname.lastname@example.org; 425-339-3443. Twitter @reporterbrown.